Getting Real with East-West Spirituality Part 1: Our 150 Year Experiment
“10% of America is doing yoga now. If this so-called yoga actually expanded consciousness shouldn’t that place be a utopia by now?”
— Anonymous, old-school yogi
I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga, tantra, and meditation for nearly 20 years now. A number of years ago I began noticing the “cracks” in the wall of the whole Eastern-sprituality-in-the-West world — things I realised I’d been ignoring all these years — things like the way that it is interpreted; how beliefs form around it; how culture is influenced by it; how its communities behave; how’s its leaders behave, or misbehave rather.
My own community had a number of pre-packaged responses to this kind of thing: Doubt is the obstacle! Let go and trust! The Ego is an illusion. You’ve probably heard them too.
Such aphorisms kept my doubts at bay for a while but meanwhile I kept encountering these funny coincidences, messages coming to me entirely unsought that affirmed the validity of my doubts. I went to study with a spiritual adept of over 40 years, who lives in India and who is still a key figure in an ancient and austere lineage in India. It turned out he was scathing about pretty much all of yoga in the West, and now recommends that would-be students first go back to their home country and study the spiritual tradition native to it. More on that another time…
Name a teacher in the last century, he knew something sketchy about their origins in India and painted a picture that deeply questioned the authenticity of much of what is practiced as “ancient” teachings. He’s also the one who supplied the quote at the top.
When I returned home to London, the signs kept coming. I was cooking dinner listening to a podcast which is normally unrelated to spirituality which had a guest on their who was explaining their experience being brutalised by a spiritual teacher. A few minutes later I realised it was my spiritual teacher…or rather the deceased founder of my spiritual practice. This teacher was later outed as a sexual predator and all-around hypocrite, which brings the abuse tally from prominent Indian teachers in the West to somewhere around 95% by my estimates. And I’m pretty sure there are others who would agree.
Meanwhile, scholars were saying much of what counts as yoga today was taken from European military exercises or invented less than 100 years ago! The claims to authenticity made by many of the Gurus were demonstrably false, by their own self-contradictory words sometimes!
And in modern culture, yoga was becoming more about sexy instagram accounts, celebrity teachers, and all “demystified” and “science-backed” droll.
Honestly, I was starting to find the whole genre a bit…boring — nothing of the mystical, mind-blowing, life-affirming adventure in consciousness I thought I was signing up for.
All-in-all I couldn’t just put my questions aside and keep on pretending I was some elevated worker of “light” by teaching. Questions such as…
- Why all the abuses of sex-mad, power hungry so-called spiritual masters?
- Why all the neuroses, and generally unappealing behaviour amongst people who have spent decades on a so-called personal development path?
- Why are many of us so keen to replace our own culture for the acoutremounts of a foreign one?
- Why are we mostly ignorant of our own spiritual history and heritage?
- Why aren’t we all healed, enlightened, and living liberated, inspired, prosperous lives connected to one another in joy and love, and holding positions of respected leadership around the world? Most modern yogis I know can barely pay their bills.
- Why has a once richly multi-faceted esoteric tradition been filleted and reduced into a super-sexy, hyper-commercialised product whose primary validation is through institutional “science”?
I know these are hard questions and likely some of your defense mechanisms are already coming in with responses. But despite the intro, this is not a “bad news” article. Quite the contrary, you’ll see if you hang on until the end of the series (or skip to the 4th article ;))…
For me, I finally decided to face these issues, to ask these “dirty” questions and investigate myself. Doing so has come at a cost. I’ve had to step away from communities whose identities are entrenched in things being a certain way. But I feel that finally, a deeper truth has begun to emerge about the very nature of spiritual practices. And the truth is liberating…
It is a particularly crucial time to make this self-reflection. The trend of “what’s hot in spirituality” is shifting from yoga & gurus to shamanism & indigenous wisdom keepers. Have we learned anything from our 150 year East-meets-West experiment? If not, we’ll just make the same mistakes again with the spiritual practices of South America — now with more drugs! We can see that happening already…
But if we are able to integrate the lessons, then I believe it will only serve to deepen our experience of esoteric spiritual practices no matter what form they take whilst also beginning to heal the rift with our own spiritual heritage (hint: there is a lot more than just the Church and Neo-Paganism).
So let’s take a few deep breaths and roll up our sleeves…
Holey Holy Maps…
Imagine we’re at a market in a foreign land. An inspiring man there tells us about a great hidden treasure and he sells us an ancient map to take us to it. We’re in dire need of a great treasure and he looks quite prosperous, so we go for it. It’s a very rough map though — frayed at the edges, blotch stained, with a few holes in key places. It’s quite hard to get our bearings as it’s not obvious where on the map we’re starting from. But the guy selling it assures us he’s been there and knows how to read the map.
He begins to teach us. We listen to him, doing all the funny things he asks, paying a little more each time, but after many years we can’t help but notice: No one seems to have found the treasure.
He tells us the problem is us — our doubt, our comitment, our habits. We want to trust him — indeed we’ve made great progress, or so we think — but maybe it is time to ask a few obvious questions….questions like:
What’s up with this map? Is it reliable? Are we reading it correctly? Is the treasure really where we think it is? Is it even what we think it is? Where did the map come from? Is it really “ancient” or did he put it together in order to hawk it at the market? And why are we still paying this guy to live it up when we haven’t found the treasure he promised? And, even worse, why are we now re-printing and selling this map to millions of people as some sort of timeless pure relic and solution to all their problems — like some sort of mystical Ponzi scheme — when it hasn’t ever proven to deliver what it promises??
The “map” here represents Eastern spiritual teachings in the West. And the “treasure” is whatever they are promising: enlightenment, samadhi, finding your true self, living your infinite potential…
I think it is very reasonable, if somewhat controversial, to say that the spiritual traditions of “the East” have not quite delivered us to the Shangra-la they promised. Not that they haven’t given us anything — of course they have — just not in proportion to what they promised when they sold us on it.
In other words, if 40 years of daily multi-hour practice, tens of thousands of dollars/pounds/euros, and huge amounts of time invested only results in you being more “peaceful” and 15% happier, might one consider whether there is a more efficient route to that goal?
Meanwhile our expectations have dropped considerably. The 60s hippie generation got into these practices, en masse, in order to liberate themselves from the oppressive mono-culture. Today we use “mindfulness” to perform better in the office. Some more boring.
But the old yogic texts promised much more than better focus at work. They promised transcendent states of awareness, telepathy, telekinesis, mastery over one’s metabolism, trans-conscious awareness, communion with high order beings and Ultimate Truth. They promised nothing short of breaking The Matrix.
So why aren’t we all Neo? Where are these extraodrinary states of perception that the stories promised? And why are questions like this so taboo? …asked so little? We assess the performance of our smartphones all the time (“Oh it’s so slow nowadays. Time for an upgrade!”). Yet when it comes to mystical pursuits, they seem to include built-in belief narratives that prevent us from assessing their effectiveness in our lives, for example “doubt is the obstacle” or “let go of trying to control”, etc. I think it’s high time we set these beliefs aside for a moment to review the map.
To be clear, I am not asking that we reject these practices. I believe there is huge untapped potential in the them, but it is currently locked behind the bars of false expectations and erroneous beliefs. We are reading the map wrong — seeing it as something that it is not. And then trying desperately to prove its worth by confirming one of the trees is in the correct place.
Holding out for a hero
Most of those whom I encounter who are enthusiastic about these practices fall into one of two camps:
The Romantics: These people believe they have found a pure and ancient map and they dogmatically interpret it based on how a teacher has instructed them, believing that they are preserving something authentically handed down through time immemorial. Usually, a little investigation or Socratic enquiry begins to show holes in this narrative and they tend to get quite defensive and even offensive towards those who point them out. Thus they also tend to avoid such interrogations themselves and confine themselves to insular communities which have their own vocabulary and idiomatic expressions — typically aphorisms said by their lead figure which get repeated ad nauseam.
The Modernists: These are the people who “demystify” the practices. They dissect them and assess each component’s merit by its utility according to the mainstream institutions, such as medical research, commercial appeal, social media popularity. They tend to view spirituality as a genre with certain prescribed preferences such as political affiliations, support for certain causes, dietary preference and even a particular fashion sense. They do not realise how their framework has hidden roots in the colonial imperialism of not too distant. We’ll focus on this very topic in a subsequent article.
I am convinced that both of these views, despite seeming like opposites, misread the map in the same way. And when we realise exactly how they misread the map, then suddenly all of the wackiness comes into focus. No longer is it inexplicable that a spiritual master could also commit sexual abuse. No longer is it surprising that yoga has become one of the biggest boons to the petro-chemical-based clothing industry.
No longer is it necessary to believe that in order to heal your deep traumas, you must stick to the one meditation routine generically prescribed to you and “trust”. No longer is it necessary to redefine your notion of prosperity to be some sort of bizarre self-accepted disempowerment towards life. Instead of all of this nonsense, we can just gracefully accept that our “infinite” spiritual teachings have limitations.
So how then are we misreading the map? It boils down to this: we are all holding out for a hero — someone or something that will solve all of our individual and collective problems, without us having to go too deeply into them. Even if you think you know better, I strongly encourage you to be open to the possibility that its influence is still in you. We have nearly all grown up totally immersed in a culture obsessed with that fantasy, which has fed it with a lifetime of media about saviours, white knights, Jedis, overnight successes and Will Smith…
The first generations of those to become interested in Eastern spirituality played right into an overly romanticised view about the exotic spiritual traditions being the solution to all of their woes. And today, we carry on that legacy, perhaps with a new Guru or perhaps with the great Guruji, “Science”. This truth sits secretly behind much of what we see now.
The early guru-figures painted for us a picture of a pure spirituality in contrast to our corrupted Church — a spirituality of total inclusiveness, of peace, and one that had an unbroken lineage going back to a time before time when the world was a better place.
But just scratching the surface of this narrative reveals that it is not so true. There may be truth in it, but there are also many, less savoury influences intertwined with the so-called “pure” spirituality — cultural influences, political agendas. We will investigate some of these in the subsequent articles in this series.
All “narratives” are an effort to understand reality. This particular narrative — that these are pure teachings given by exotic sages solely out their love and compassion for humanity — just does a rather poor job of describing the actual reality we’ve witnessed these last 150 years.
There is a better narrative — one that gives us more traction when trying to understanding all the unexpected behaviours and outcomes which I described earlier. This better narrative is thus…
We are all involved in a great hidden war.
Find Part 2 of the Getting Real with East-West Spirituality series here…
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